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Meeting the needs of gifted underachievers – individually!

Gifted Parenting and Strategies

This article by Joan Smutney, lists the common characteristics of gifted underachievers, addresses some of the “most promising” solutions to underachievement as helpful tips for parents, and emphasizes the importance of advocacy.

Author: Smutney, J.
Publications: 2e Newsletter
Year: December 2004

As noted by the National Excellence report (Ross, 1993), there is a “quiet crisis” in the education of gifted students today – “quiet” because few people raise their voices on behalf of underachieving gifted children in our schools. It could be argued that the “quiet” response has reinforced the crisis and perpetuated a neglect of America’s talent in all sectors of society. Research has estimated that about half of all identified gifted students do not perform well academically (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1984: Richert, 1991). This estimate does not include the thousands of gifted who remain unidentified because of underachievement or because of other factors such as poverty, cultural difference (Peterson, 1999), geographic isolation, or learning disabilities.

What are the Common Characteristics of Gifted Underachievers?

Researchers recognize that underachievement is a diverse phenomenon with a variety of determinants. Whitmore (1989) identified three broad causes for underachievement in gifted children:

  • Lack of motivation to apply themselves in school
  • Environments that do not nurture their gifts and may even discourage high achievement
  • Disabilities or other learning deficits that mask their giftedness.

Children in all three categories tell a similar story. All manifest a discrepancy between potential (as seen from test scores, products, or observations of parents, relatives, or neighbors) and achievement in school. Despite the uniqueness of each individual, a significant number of underachievers respond to similar challenges in more or less similar ways.

Commonly cited characteristics of underachieving gifted students include (Van Tassel-Baska, 1992; Whitmore, 1986; Rimm, 1986; Baum, Owen & Dixon, 1991):

  • Low self-esteem
  • Consistently negative attitude toward school and learning
  • Reluctance to take risks or apply one’s self
  • Discomfort with competition
  • Lack of perseverance
  • Lack of goal-directed behavior
  • Social isolation
  • Weaknesses in skill areas and organization
  • Disruptiveness in class and resistance to class activities.

My experiences in school districts have shown that many educators and administrators do not understand the scope of the underachievement phenomenon among gifted students, nor are they likely to recognize it in their own schools. There are two reasons for this. First, the stereotype of giftedness – what it looks like and how it appears in the classroom – is still so strong that even the most observant educators tend to equate giftedness with achievement. A despondent, disorganized, and rebellious student who rarely performs well is typically not thought of as “gifted.” Second, even when teachers recognize the potential of a struggling student, they tend to see the underachievement as a problem within the child – rather than as a response to conditions at home or in school. They will make comments to parents such as, “If he’d just apply himself more and stop distracting the rest of the class, maybe he’d get better grades.”

What are the Most Promising Solutions to Underachievement?

Examine the Problem Individually. Underachievement covers a broad spectrum of situations from a minor school problem with a fairly obvious cause to a more entrenched long-term pattern. Since underachievement is such a varied and complex phenomenon, each case must be examined individually – with no preconceptions. As Hansford (2001, p. 316) observes: “Underachievement is very specific to the individual child; intervention and remediation of underachievement must be individually developed and implemented.”

Create a Teacher-Parent Collaboration. Teachers and parents need to work together and pool their information and experience regarding the child. Most interventions in the literature involve parent-teacher collaborations (e.g., Rimm, 1986, 2001), where they can coordinate their efforts and help the child progress more effectively. Some of the questions teachers and parents can explore together are:

  • In what areas has the child shown exceptional ability?
  • What are the child’s preferred learning styles?
  • What insights do parents and teachers have about the child’s strengths and problem areas?
  • What does the child say about self-needs, interests, and school experiences, and how is this information to be interpreted?

This kind of joint exploration yields useful insight into the nature of the child’s abilities and the root of the problem.

Stay Focused on the Child’s Gifts. When examining a child’s underachievement, always begin by focusing on strengths; a deficiency approach encourages the child to focus on weaknesses even more than before. At each point the investigation needs to find the most effective ways to involve the child in the pursuit and exploration of personal talents and interests. This builds the confidence and strength the child needs to manage problem areas. A gifted underachiever once wrote Sylvia Rimm a letter that expresses perfectly the importance of focusing on the gift:

I remember you told me to continue and explore my creativity through writing and acting because that is how I would truly find my strengths. I remember how you taught me to manage my life strategically because this would help my confusing and random, inconsistent behavior. I finally remember that you told me to never be afraid to express myself no matter what others thought. (2001, p. 350)

Create an Individual Plan for the Child. The plan designed for the child has to emerge from the nature of individual gifts and the root causes of the underachievement. An underachieving Native American child, for example, who suffers from low skill development due to poverty, inadequate schooling, and low self-esteem needs an individualized program that will provide mentoring in the development of personal gifts, open-ended projects that allow free exploration and divergent thinking, and also special intervention to strengthen skills. (Scruggs & Cohn, 1983). Research on culturally different and disadvantaged gifted students has produced a number of effective models (Smutny, 2001a) that educators can use to help reverse underachievement. These models show how factors such as cultural difference and impoverishment lead to underachievement and the kinds of interventions children need to overcome the barriers that have isolated them from their own talents.

In a number of cases, a difference in learning style has hindered the progress of a gifted child. Peterson (2001) points out that creative children have a tendency to underachieve because their thinking style diverges so drastically from the convergent style rewarded by schools. Janos and Robinson state that schools “tend to reward the less original students and may, indeed, exacerbate the problems of some creative children” (Peterson 2001, p. 326). Avoiding competition (Rimm, 1986) and acceleration, these underachievers often improve once they find themselves in classes where they can use their talents in creative thinking, learning, and expression.

Creative students need solutions that give them both the freedom to create and the support in skill and organization areas where they are weak. Baum, Renzulli, and Hebert (1995) used Renzulli’s Type III enrichment to design an intervention model that addresses the creative needs of gifted underachievers and that also helps them complete projects in a systematic way. In this model, teachers can address individual needs — whether they be limited skills, poor goal-making, or trouble with sequential tasks — without making the child’s weaknesses the primary focus or limiting the work options or activities. Research bears out that underachievers — particularly those whose problem is school-based — change for the better when they have a differentiated curriculum with a variety of learning styles and a supportive teacher who values learning over performance (Emerick, 1992; Dweck, 1986).

Rimm’s Trifocal Model (1986, 2001) is one of the most comprehensive approaches to underachievement. The model operates on the philosophy that underachievement is learned, and therefore achievement can also be learned. Rimm examines the three major influences on a child’s life — home, school, and peer culture — and seeks to understand how these areas contribute to the child’s underachievement. Rimm’s analysis of the defense mechanisms an underachiever uses to establish “dependent or dominant rituals” (2001, p. 353) provides keen insight into the subtle dynamics between a child and the adults in his life that reinforce a pattern of nonproductive behaviors.

A Final Note – The importance of Advocacy

Each underachieving gifted child has special characteristics, gifts, and challenges that require a unique response. Some form of advocacy has to take place for any solution to work (Smutny, 2001b). Because of their low self-esteem, gifted underachievers need, as Rimm (1986; 2001) points out, mentors or role models with whom the children can identify and in whom they can confide when they face obstacles. Children who do not feel good about themselves have a particularly difficult time sustaining interests or persevering when they have problems. For gifted children, this problem is greatly exaggerated by the heightened sensitivity and insight that accompany giftedness.

This is where advocacy comes in. In many respects the absence or presence of advocacy can determine whether or not a child overcomes underachievement. The children I have seen emerge from difficult school experiences were those who had a special person in their lives who was committed to their success when they were not themselves committed, who cared for them when they felt alone or inadequate, who supported them through all their doubts and fears. The gifted child who wrote to Rimm credited her with the support, affection, encouragement, and wisdom that true advocates bring to their role, and it changed the course of this child’s life. This is the quality we all must bring to the gifted underachievers in our schools and homes.

Author and teacher Joan Franklin Smutny is founder and director of the Center for Gifted at National-Louis University. Among her books are Stand up for Your Gifted Child and Underserved Gifted Populations.


Baum, S. M., Owen, S. V., & Dixon, J. (1991). To be gifted and learning disabled. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press.

Baum, S. M., Renzulli, J. S., & Hebert, T. P. (1995). Reversing underachievement: Creative productivity as a systematic intervention. Gifted Child Quarterly, 39(4), 224-235.

Davis, G. A., & Rimm, S. B. (1994). Education of the gifted and talented (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Dweck, C. S. (1986). Motivational processes affecting learning. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1040-1048.

Emerick, L. J. (1992). Academic underachievement among the gifted: Students’ perceptions of factors that reverse the pattern. Gifted Child Quarterly, 36(3),140-146.

Hansford, S. (2001). Underachieving gifted children. In J.F. Smutny (Ed.), Underserved gifted populations (309-322). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1984). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Peterson, J. S. (2001). Underachievers: Students who don’t perform. In J.F. Smutny (Ed.), Underserved gifted populations (323-348). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Peterson, J. S. (1999). Gifted—through whose cultural lens? Journal for the Education for the Gifted 22(4): 354-383.

Richert, E. S. (1991). Patterns of underachievement among gifted students. In M. Bireley, & J. Genshaft, (Eds.), Understanding the gifted adolescent: Educational, developmental, and multicultural issues (139-162. New York: Teachers College Press.

Rimm, S. B. (2001). Underachievement: A continuing dilemma. In J.F. Smutny (Ed.), Underserved gifted populations (349-360). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rimm, S. B. (1986). Underachievement syndrome: Causes and cures. Watertown, WI: Apple Publishing.

Ross, P. (Ed.). (1993). National excellence: A case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Scruggs, T. E. & Cohn, S. J. (1983). A university-based summer program for a highly able but poorly achieving Indian child, Gifted Child Quarterly 27(2) 90-93.

Smutny, J. F. (2001a). Underserved gifted populations. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Smutny, J. F. (2001b). Stand up for your gifted child. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, Inc.

Van Tassel-Baska, J. (1992). Planning effective curriculum for gifted learners. Denver, CO: Love.

Whitmore, J. R. (1989). Re-examining the concept of underachievement. Understanding Our Gifted 2(1) 10-12.

Whitmore, J. R. (1986). Preventing severe underachievement and developing achievement motivation. In J.R. Whitmore (Ed.), Intellectual giftedness in young children: Recognition and development. New York: Haworth Press.

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